Graeme Wood: Islamic State Wears an Ideological Straitjacket
Graeme Wood, writing on "What ISIS Really Wants" (The Atlantic, March 2015), tells us that the Islamic State follows a heavily apocalyptic, ideological belief system that is predictable enough for us to foresee its moves:
The ideological purity of the Islamic State has one compensating virtue: it allows us to predict some of the group’s actions . . . . [It] boasts openly about its plans - not all of them, but enough so that by listening carefully, we can deduce how it intends to govern and expand . . . . [T]he waging of war to expand the caliphate is an essential duty of the caliph . . . . [T]he state has an obligation to terrorize its enemies - a holy order to scare . . . . them with beheadings and crucifixions and enslavement of women and children, because doing so hastens victory and avoids prolonged conflict . . . . Islamic law permits only temporary peace treaties, lasting no longer than a decade. Similarly, accepting any border is anathema, as stated by the Prophet and echoed in the Islamic State's propaganda videos. If the caliph consents to a longer-term peace or permanent border, he will be in error. Temporary peace treaties are renewable, but may not be applied to all enemies at once: the caliph must wage jihad at least once a year. He may not rest, or he will fall into a state of sin . . . . [Establishing a state and joining the UN] is shirk, or polytheism . . . and would be immediate cause to hereticize and replace [Abu Bakr al-]Baghdadi. Even to hasten the arrival of a caliphate by democratic means - for example by voting for political candidates who favor a caliphate - is shirk . . . . [One can hardly] overstate how hamstrung the Islamic State will be by its radicalism. The modern international system, born of the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, relies on each state's willingness to recognize borders, however grudgingly. For the Islamic State, that recognition is ideological suicide. Other Islamist groups, such as the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, have succumbed to the blandishments of democracy and the potential for an invitation to the community of nations, complete with a UN seat. Negotiation and accommodation have worked, at times, for the Taliban as well . . . . To the Islamic State these are not options, but acts of apostasy . . . . [We] have reacted to the Islamic State belatedly and in an apparent daze. The group's ambitions and rough strategic blueprints were evident in its pronouncements and in social-media chatter as far back as 2011, when it was just one of many terrorist groups in Syria and Iraq and hadn't yet committed mass atrocities. [Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-]Adnani, the spokesman, told followers then that the group's ambition was to "restore the Islamic caliphate," and he evoked the apocalypse, saying, "There are but a few days left." Baghdadi had already styled himself "commander of the faithful," a title ordinarily reserved for caliphs, in 2011. In April 2013, Adnani declared the movement "ready to redraw the world upon the Prophetic methodology of the caliphate." In August 2013, he said, "Our goal is to establish an Islamic state that doesn't recognize borders, on the Prophetic methodology." By then, the group had taken Raqqa, a Syrian provincial capital of perhaps 500,000 people, and was drawing in substantial numbers of foreign fighters who'd heard its message . . . . [Had we] identified the Islamic State's intentions early, and realized that the vacuum in Syria and Iraq would give it ample space to carry them out, we might, at a minimum, have pushed Iraq to harden its border with Syria and preemptively make deals with its Sunnis. That would at least have avoided the electrifying propaganda effect created by the declaration of a caliphate just after the conquest of Iraq's third-largest city . . . . Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it [through air strikes]] appears the best of bad military options . . . . If the United States were to invade, [however,] the Islamic State's [apocalyptic] obsession with battle at Dabiq suggests that it might send vast resources there, as if in a conventional battle. If the state musters at Dabiq in full force, only to be routed [by the West's vastly superior arsenal], it might never recover.Maybe the Islamic State would collapse if defeated at the prophesied victory-battle of Dabiq, but when prophecy fails, belief is often strengthened in response to cognitive dissonance, so we should be forewarned about that. Anyway, the article is enlightening on the Islamic State, about which Wood doesn't mince words:
The reality is that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic . . . . [T]he religion preached by its most ardent followers derives from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam . . . . [E]very major decision and law promulgated by the Islamic State adheres to what it calls, in its press and pronouncements, and on its billboards, license plates, stationery, and coins, "the Prophetic methodology," which means following the prophecy and example of Muhammad, in punctilious detail.That's an unflinchingly honest assertion, and I'm indebted to Bill Vallicella for posting on this article first and thereby calling my attention to it.